By Elaine Tan, Chief Executive Officer, WWF-Singapore
What do Jackie Chan and basketball legend Yao Ming have in common with thousands of people in Singapore? All have spoken out against consuming shark’s fin.
An increasing number of people here have stopped eating it altogether. In the past month alone, 3,000 pledged to say “no” to shark’s fin on the WWF-Singapore website.
While an increasing number of people in Singapore have reduced or stopped consuming shark fin, this dish continues to be an emotional and divisive issue. This is why a recent debate that emerged on this issue has been so significant.
Last week, we released a report, together with wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC, that found Singapore to be the world’s second largest trader of shark fin in terms of value. Even as thousands voiced their support to stop the consumption of shark fin in Singapore, local businesses have chimed in with their views too.
Mr Yio Jin Xian from the Marine and Land Products Association (MPA), which represents shark fin traders supplying 70% of the market in Singapore, followed up on the report with claims that most shark products in Singapore are “sustainable”.
This statement was based on the following claims:
(1) Majority of shark fin imported by Singapore are from developed countries such as the US, EU, and Australia.
(2) Fins from sharks caught in federally regulated waters from these developed countries are “sustainable”.
(3) It is more sustainable when the whole shark carcass is utilised, not just the fins.
It is important that we get our facts right on an issue that so many Singaporeans care about and have taken action on. Nine out of ten people here care about sharks going extinct; eight out of ten have stopped consuming shark fin over the past year. Yet, a significant group of people still view shark fin as a part of their culture and tradition.
This is also an issue with global implications. Sharks are an important source of livelihood for many coastal communities. Demand for shark fin is draining the oceans of these key predators, with impacts on the marine environment, a major food source for us.
Is there truly such a thing as shark fin from sustainable sources – or is it pure fiction?
Traceability from source to seller
You cannot know what is sustainable if you do not know where it comes from. This is especially true in the shark trade.
Singapore’s shark fin traders at the MPA claim that most of our fins are from developed countries like the US, EU and Australia. Current import data completely contradicts these claims.
According to Singapore’s trade statistics, Spain, Namibia, Uruguay, Hong Kong and Indonesia are listed as top countries from which Singapore imports our shark fin. With the exception of Hong Kong, which trades shark fin caught elsewhere, these are all source countries with no known sustainable shark fisheries.
Using Indonesia as an example, environmental groups monitoring the fishing industry estimate that in certain fish markets, about two out of ten sharks brought to shore are threatened with extinction.
More importantly, there is no traceability system in place today – in Singapore or anywhere in the world – that can adequately track individual shark fins from source to seller. This means that any businesses that claim to know the source countries of their shark fin will not have the means to verify their own claims.
Legality does not equate sustainability
While certain countries like the US and Australia have been more progressive with regulating shark fishing in their waters, this does not mean that all shark products from these countries are sustainable. While having laws in place help govern general fishing practices in a country, not all fisheries are the same. In reality, regulating the types of species caught and preventing overfishing remains a challenge.
Independent third party certification of a fishery is the only way that us as consumers can be sure that fisheries do not engage in unsustainable practices. These certification bodies, notably the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), monitor each fishery on an operational level, in order to ensure that they are run and managed responsibly.
Only one shark fishery in the world has been certified sustainable by MSC – for spiny dogfish in the US. It is worth noting that in this fishery, the shark species is mainly caught for its meat, with fins being a low value by-product.
Apart from this fishery, no other shark fisheries have been certified sustainable by MSC.
Sustainability goes beyond “zero wastage”
There is no doubt that shark finning – where carcasses are thrown back into the sea – is a wasteful and senseless practice. More countries now discourage these practices by having regulations that require the whole shark to be brought to land. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that this alone makes a fishery “sustainable”.
A few things go into determining what is sustainable: healthy populations of a species, management measures to prevent overfishing and the impact of fishing on the environment. Applying the above criteria to shark fishing, it becomes clear why current practices do not meet our sustainability standards.
First, shark populations are on the decline as a result of overexploitation. Over 70 million sharks are removed from our oceans every year – equivalent to 8,000 sharks every hour. Shark populations are being raced to extinction with such immense demand.
This impacts coastal communities too. Shark fishermen talk of how they used to be able to catch sharks close to home but now have to travel farther afield to catch enough sharks.
Unsustainable shark fisheries may also use non-selective fishing gear, often with terrible consequences for non-target species. This further endangers populations of protected sharks, dolphins and turtles.
As sharks play a major role in maintaining ocean ecosystems, removing them from the oceans will have a knock-on effect on the health of our oceans and marine life, a major food source for us all.
A solution lies within our shores
The shark crisis is a problem we all share. With at least 68 countries and territories involved in the trade through Singapore alone, the complexity of this global trade is staggering.
As fins trade hands across countries, information about the source, type of sharks and the numbers fished get muddled and even lost. What is legal cannot be separated from the illegal; sustainable from the unsustainable. As a result, we continue to catch, trade and consume tens of millions of sharks every year, including endangered species that are protected nationally or internationally.
It is time to come together and put a stop to this. A solution and way forward exists, but it requires everyone to work together – from governments, to businesses and people like you and me.
On an international level, we need traceability systems that can track the movement of shark fin and products across the world. This is where nations like Hong Kong and Singapore – the world’s top shark fin traders – come in. Both countries are key transit hubs for shark fin products.
In these countries, customs procedures need to be in place that can allow for better tracking of species and actual trade volumes of shark fins. Hong Kong is already in the process of integrating such procedures, while Singapore still has some way to go. To their credit, customs officials in Hong Kong have busted some major illegal shipments of shark fin in recent months.
With better monitoring of the global shark trade through these measures, businesses – including Singapore’s shark fin traders – can have more confidence about the sources of their products, including basic information on species and legality.
Will we ever be able to fish sharks sustainably? Yes, but in the near future, the volumes of sustainable products are still a tiny fraction of global demand. Until shark fisheries can prove that they can be sustainably managed and track their products to end-consumers, the only way to protect our oceans is to greatly reduce our demand.
From the Chinese government banning the dish from being served at official functions, to the state of California advocating a complete ban on this product, momentum to address this continues to build around the world.
Right now, the solution does not lie with the fishermen, or even outside of our borders – it is in making a drastic reduction in the rate that we are consuming shark fin and shark products. With each and every consumer making the individual choice to say no to shark fin, we can hopefully work together to turn the tide for sharks, and in doing so, ensure healthier oceans.
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